A haphazard approach causes significant harm to the war effort: Coverage of repeated televised apologies overshadows progress made by troops on the ground, and effective Taliban propaganda continues without adequate repudiation. With an effective media/public relations policy, the military could leverage news organizations to be an invaluable resource in fighting the Taliban.
As it stands now, however, the military’s PR incompetence makes the media akin to a lead weight on the shoulders of a marathon runner.
Since the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military and media have shared a rocky relationship characterized by periods of mutual benefit, but also mutual hostility. Unprecedented access for reporters allows for never-before-seen coverage: Few of us can forget, for instance, the live reporting from a tank speeding toward Baghdad at the outset of the Iraq war.
The downside now to giving “embedded” reporters such access, however, is that every mistake and miscommunication in Afghanistan is captured and instantly beamed to televisions around the world or disseminated across the Internet, weakening public support for the war, while providing a free recruiting tool to the Taliban.
Despite what polemicists on both sides claim, the media has not been motivated by political bias in its coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, ratings – and the advertising dollars they command – have been the driving force shaping media coverage.
As the public’s attitude toward the mission in Afghanistan has soured, so, too has the tone taken by the media in its coverage of the war. News coverage is dominated by stories of corrupt Afghan officials and the newest trend, civilian deaths, leaving coalition commanders to engage in an endless cycle of public apologies.
Even during the fierce fighting last month in Marjah, Afghanistan, the media was filled with stories of civilian casualties, forcing repeated apologies and pledges of restraint from Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Therein lies the first problem with the US military’s media strategy: It is impossible to win a war if one spends half the time apologizing. Compounding this, pledges to avoid civilian deaths, short of a stop to all military operations, are unfeasible. What the military ends up with is a public relations disaster and essentially “wins the battle, but loses the war.”
Coalition troops may have scored a solid tactical victory in routing the Taliban from Marjah, but that triumph was overshadowed, even characterized, by coverage of civilian deaths and Gen. McChrystal shamefacedly appearing on TV to apologize. Worse, it will be another asset for the Taliban to use in its propaganda and recruiting campaigns.
The second problem is the Taliban’s savvier use of propaganda. Unlike NATO forces, they don’t allow reporters virtually unfettered access, so they can make wild propaganda claims that go unchallenged, both by the media who eagerly report them, or by the military.
The US military takes a reactive approach. It tries to jam Taliban-controlled broadcasts or shut down insurgent websites, and when it does attempt some feel-good propaganda, such as the story of heroism surrounding the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman caused by friendly fire, it is quickly exposed and condemned by the media. Not surprisingly, this then leads to another round of apologies from military brass.
Unfortunately, the military has few options in regard to the media. It cannot institute a widespread ban on reporters in the battlefield, and even if such a policy were enacted, the abundance of cellular phones and laptops can turn anyone into an instant reporter, making heavy restrictions on the media unrealistic.
Instead, military commanders need to first stop spending so much time apologizing and instead heavily play up the positive aspects of a particular battle or the overall rebuilding effort.
The coalition’s focus should be on accomplishing their mission, not mollifying a group of indignant reporters in Kabul. Perhaps there will be some self-righteous fallout from the media if McChrystal does not engage in self-flagellation every time an accidental civilian death occurs, but such feelings will fade as soon as the next big story comes along.
To deal with Taliban propaganda, the US must forcefully denounce claims of exaggerated civilian/coalition troop deaths, or inflammatory accusations by the Taliban. At the same time, the military must do a better job of framing body counts, positively rebuilding stories, and particularly highlighting heroic efforts by military personnel for a media that desperately wants high ratings and online traffic.
It is simply unacceptable for a rag-tag, poorly funded group such as the Taliban to so handily deliver one public relations defeat after another to arguably the most powerful force on earth. A revamped media/PR strategy is essential to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion. And that would be the best story of all.
Allan Richarz is a writer and teacher currently working near Tokyo.
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